The story behind this version of Bird on a Wire is almost as intriguing as the film itself. Originally shot during Leonard Cohen’s 1972 tour by Tony Palmer, the director had his original cut taken from him by Cohen’s management team and a shortened, somewhat sanitised version finally appeared briefly in 1974. Then, a few years ago, Palmer found the original film and soundtrack elements and set about reconstructing the original movie, working mostly from memory. So this edition of the film is, effectively, a new edit – we can’t compare it to the lost original and it’s safe to assume that after nearly 40 years, Palmer won’t have recreated the first cut faithfully, even if that was the intention. Indeed, there is at least one bit of news footage that Palmer uses that is a few decades younger than the rest of the movie. But more on that later.
The film follows Cohen through his 1972 European tour, and is a warts ‘n’ all portrait of an artist gradually being worn down by the experience. Dealing with hopeless journalists (one person conducts an entire interview and then discovers that he hasn’t turned the tape recorder on), attractive female fans desperate for his attention (there’s an extraordinarily uncomfortable scene where Cohen tries to hit on a gorgeous girl while the cameras watch) and the pressures of the fans is one thing, but the tour is also plagued with technical problems, culminating in a German gig that has to be abandoned and where a handful of truly awful punters literally demand a refund straight from the singer’s own pocket. Then there’s the near-riot in Israel…
All this seems to wear Cohen down to the point where he seems reluctant to even take the stage – and when he does, his frustration with fans who shout out during songs or burst into spontaneous applause at the start of a number, their own desire to show how quickly they recognise a song helping to drown it out, often boils over. Cohen stops songs to talk to the audience, trying to get them to actually listen, and improvises little numbers as the technical problems and his own emotional state get the better of him. There’s perhaps as much of Cohen on stage not singing as there is actual performance.
It’s not that Cohen is whitewashed as an artist victim though. Early in the film, he claims to be easy to deal with but as it goes on, he shows himself to be as self-absorbed and difficult as any other rock star and some of his pronouncements, especially in the endless press interviews, seem to be pompous nonsense. But I guess that goes with the territory.
And while this is no concert film, there is nevertheless plenty of excellent footage of Cohen performing his best known songs of the era – Suzanne, Chelsea Hotel, Sisters of Mercy, Famous Blue Raincoat and the title track among them. Palmer shoots these with a highly personal style – all tight close-ups and sustained shots of Cohen and backing singers Jennifer Warnes and Donna Washburn, giving an unusual intimacy to the performances, which are all excellent. This level of intimacy continues with the off-stage scenes – it’s clear that sometimes, the camera is an unwelcome intruder, at other times something being played to.
Palmer also intercuts some numbers with what I guess is social commentary, though it seems a little out of place within the context of the film – and viewers should be warned that this includes news footage of dead, burned bodies and children’s corpses, including more recent video footage from the Middle East. While Palmer’s point in including these scenes might be valid, it nevertheless feels a little out of place. This is, after all, an intimate look at an artist, not a commentary on war or US foreign policy, and for such scenes to suddenly – and briefly – appear seems rather gratuitous given that Cohen’s music is so introverted.
It’s hard to imagine anyone being allowed to make a documentary like this today, when public image is something to be maintained at all times (and, given the film’s original fate, it wasn’t always acceptable then either!). But Palmer’s film sits alongside the likes of Don’t Look Back, Gimme Shelter and Cocksucker Blues as a raw, uncompromising look at the highs and lows of touring. Fans of both Cohen’s music and serious rockumentaries should find much to enjoy here.